Deep Fried Interview: God Help the Girl and Young Ones cinematographer Giles Nuttgens

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It’s hard to imagine two more disparate films than God Help the Girl and Young Ones. The former – shot in Glasgow on 16mm – is anarchic, whimsical and vibrantly colored, echoing the spirit of the French New Wave. The latter – lensed on anamorphic 35mm during a smoldering South African summer – is formalist, brooding and nearly monochromatic, recalling both the vistas of the American Western and the hard-scrabble Dustbowl sagas of John Steinbeck.

Yet for cinematographer Giles Nuttgens, the projects held a common thread.

“In a simple way, the attraction of both of them is that they’re shot on film and I’m one of those people who is taking a little time in terms of the changeover to digital. Not because I think digital is worse. I just think it’s a different medium and a different process. I’m very comfortable with film. I’ve grown up with it and I like the way film looks,” Nuttgens said. “But also, I think there’s an air of honesty, or maybe sincerity, in both of the films in the way they search for a very simple emotion. And if you work in cinema and you are able to get anywhere near that emotional space visually, then you should feel okay because it’s often quite hard to achieve.”

Nuttgens chatted with Deep Fried Movies about grappling with the South African sun, saving 16mm and a filmmakers obligation as a documentarian of their times.

The Plots: Written and directed by Belle and Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch, God Help the Girl recounts the events of one life-altering summer in the lives of three young musicians (played by Emily Browning, Olly Alexander and Hannah Murray) in Glasgow, complete with fourth-wall shattering musical numbers.
Told in a series of three chapters, Young Ones weaves an archetypal tale of family, revenge and survival as farmer Michael Shannon and his children (Kodi Smit-McPhee and Elle Fanning) struggle to exist in a drought-ridden future dystopia.

The Cinematographer: British DP Giles Nuttgens’ work includes an eclectic range of films encompassing Battlefield Earth (2000), The Deep End (2001), What Maisie Knew (2012) and Dom Hemingway (2013).

Both films are currently available OnDemand. Young Ones is also in the midst of a limited theatrical run.

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You shot Jake Paltrow’s directorial debut, The Good Night, back in 2007. What about that experience made you keen to work together again on Young Ones?

We always intended to do another film together and I waited for several years for his script to come through. When it did I was just completely taken aback by its force. It had an ecological message, but it was also about the loss of a father and it was also about vengeance. It felt like The Grapes of Wrath. It just had a visceral edge that independent filmmaking doesn’t generally have so much at the moment.

Jake – besides being very educated about cinema – has a very specific take on everything that he wants to do. That’s what I want out of a director. A director can come to me and say, “I don’t know anything technical” and I’ll be just as happy working with them as long as they’ve got a viewpoint about the material. And Jake has a very specific viewpoint. The other thing about Jake is he has a very clear idea about what is cinema and what is reality. We’ve always felt that we could take something which is a very visceral, harsh situation, such as the burning desert, and turn that into something which feels tough but still has an inherent beauty.

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The film is being described as a “futuristic western.” Though it doesn’t bear a great deal of resemblance to the latter genre in terms of mood or tone, the sheer expanse of the dusty frontier certainly recalls the classical western. Did you and Paltrow have specific visual references that you used as a starting point?

Our starting points were less visual, actually. Although we’d talk about certain styles of cinema, we spoke much more about the feeling of the environment and the relationships between the people. I tend to reference films that have a similar emotion rather than a similar visual take. When I say the script reminded me of The Grapes of Wrath, it was more about the feeling that there’s this other place across a border where there’s a possibility of surviving and people trying to escape the harshness of their situation to get there.

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How did you settle on South Africa as your shooting location?

We couldn’t really have even a blade of grass visible because the film was supposed to occur in a place that had been in a drought for 15 years and believe it or not on this planet it’s really difficult to find a place like that which isn’t just pure sand. We had to find a place to shoot where there was no water, where it looked hot as hell. A place where people really would suffer. Our location in South Africa was 120 degrees every day, but we had to transfer that feeling of hardship onto film. This is difficult, because if you just expose your shots normally, a really hot space can feel just like a normal sunny day. So we pull-processed the film to flatten out the contrast and take the edge off the colors. Then we lifted everything up to make sure you really felt as much of the heat as possible. People tend to put high contrast in cinema at the moment — maybe because digital has a little less latitude than film — so to get somebody like Jake who was willing to sort of flatten out the image was fantastic.

How did you handle lighting exteriors in the blistering sun on a film with so many panoramic wide shots?

Because we had a very specific time of year that we had to shoot, which was already into the summer, we started shooting at a point when the sun was above our heads all the time. That always creates a huge amount of problems because toplight coming straight down is not the prettiest light in the world. Jake shoots about 35 to 38 set-ups a day. Your average film probably does 15 to 20. So Jake’s at double that rate. So shooting at that speed and actually trying to control the daylight was difficult. We had a very strict schedule with Michael Shannon, so the first chapter of the film is pretty much available light, daylight interiors included.

The desert is the biggest source of bounce light there is, so normally you would try to control that to create modeling by taking some of the bounce light away, using negative fill. But we didn’t do that in the first section of the film. Because the toplight from the overhead sun was so harsh, more than anything we WANTED that bounce fill coming up off the ground to light up the actors’ eyes. It concerned me as a DP to deal with toplight all the time, but on the other hand it gave us a harshness that served the first chapter of the film. Michael Shannon is a phenomenal actor and he’s a tough guy. He would go out and he wouldn’t have an umbrella, he wouldn’t have a hat on and he went out and suffered the heat. That helped make him into this guy who was right on the edge.

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(Above) Two close-ups of actor Nicholas Hoult – the top image was shot in the harsh toplight of the film’s opening chapter and the bottom image was shot in film’s second chapter during which Nuttgens used negative fill and a large eye light put through diffusion to model the light on Hoult’s face.

How did you alter your exterior lighting as shooting progressed?

When we began shooting the second chapter, the sun was lower because we were a few weeks further on. At that point I could actually control the sunlight and I could keep things backlit. There was still enough bounce (from the desert ground) that we started using negative fill pretty much all the time. In most cases we would put black (flags or cloth) next to the actors from one side and then, in order to just fill up their eyes, I was pouring an 18K through a 12×12 frame with highlight on it. Highlight is like a shower curtain, so it diffuses a bit, but it still leaves a clear shadow that feels like real sunlight.

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Director Stuart Murdoch tried to get God Help the Girl off the ground for a number of years. In fact, Murdoch produced a record featuring many of the film’s songs back in 2009 just to get the music out into the world in case the film never came to fruition. How did you become involved in the project?

The producers sent me links to the music and when the first song came up, “Act of the Apostle” — which is the first song in the film as well — I was expecting something very, very poppy and lightweight. But the song, though it was pop, was bluesy and beautiful. Suddenly I became really interested. And that’s basically why I took it on. We did make a sort of lightweight pop film, but it’s got a very charming, earnest and sincere side to it and I think people have really caught on to that. There’s something endearing and honest about it. I don’t have the same emotional response to music as Stuart Murdoch, but he’s lived his life through music and everything he writes is an extremely emotional thing for him.

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NFL Films – one of the largest purchasers of 16mm stock – abandoned celluloid this season in favor of the Arri Amira as its main production camera, seemingly another death knell for the survival of the format. Why was 16mm the right choice for God Help the Girl?

There is something about the texture of 16mm that nothing else has. It’s a completely different medium from anything else. 35mm and the Alexa are not that different. I’ve had people who have sworn a film I shot in 35mm was shot on an Alexa and the other way around. But 16mm is something very, very different. It deals with colors in a different way. Glasgow has the worst light on the planet. It’s terrible. We shot in Glasgow during a rainy summer, yet the colors were so fantastic on 16mm that everybody says, “I’ve never seen Glasgow look so sunny.” I think film is worth saving, but I know in the long run it’s impractical and uneconomic. But I would say if we have to save one medium, don’t lose 16mm because it looks so different from anything else and to lose those emulsions would be really, terribly sad.

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(Above) The shifting look of God Help the Girl as the film’s summer draws to a close.

Transforming Glasgow’s “worst light on the planet” into something ephemeral and beautiful is done in service of the idea that the events of God Help the Girl are being viewed through the amber prism of youthful exuberance. At the film’s conclusion – as the characters’ fateful summer ends – you strip away that warm glow and in the final scene present Glasgow in all its overcast, desultory glory.

In the original script, Stuart wrote that the final scene shifted from color to black and white. Many of us thought that it should fade gradually and I showed Stuart what that would look like in the Digital Intermediate. The transition was actually invisible. And Stuart said, “No, no, no, no, I don’t want that. I want the audience to know that this moment in the characters’ lives is finished.”

I always equated it to (Danny Boyle’s film) The Beach. I know there are people who didn’t like that film, but at the end of The Beach there’s this fantastic thing that happens where Leonardo (DiCaprio) goes into an internet cafe and logs onto some website and pictures come up of all of the people who were on the island with him. And it’s just about fleeting moments in life. In the same way that God Help the Girl is about that one particular summer, The Beach is about a moment and the emotions you carry as memories for the rest of life. So on your death bed when you’re sitting there and trying to hold it together, what you hold onto are the very strong emotions from precious moments in life and I think that’s what Stuart was trying to capture.

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In interviews, Stuart has cited everything from American Graffiti to the films of John Hughes as influences. But to me, the film simply radiates the style and spirit of the French New Wave. 

When I used to watch a lot of (Jean-Luc) Godard films, I always thought the most amazing thing about it was that those films were historical documents of not just how society was, but also how Paris was, how French life was, at that time. The cars lining the streets don’t exist anymore, the buildings are different, the bars have disappeared. Everything’s changed. I think the one thing Stuart has managed to do (with God Help the Girl) is produce a historical document of what Glasgow was like in 2012. And I do think that’s a service filmmakers deliver. In some ways, we are the documentarians of our time. We may be doing fiction films, but we have a duty to show the world as it is because that’s what the next generation is going to see.

More images from God Help the Girl

More images from Young Ones

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